The Story of My Life

Current book stack

Over the last twenty five years, I have kept a journal more often than I have not. Over the last 14 I have written more than 6,000 posts on this blog. Over the last 11 years I have tweeted more than 25,000 times. There’s a lot for me to look back on if I wanted to learn something about myself. Despite all of that, when I want to know the story of my life (at least since 1996) I turn to my reading list.

I have kept a list of every book I have finished since January 1, 1996. The entries are brief. Each book gets a number. I record the title, the author, the medium (paper, e-book, audiobook), the number of pages (or listening time) and the date I finished reading it. If I like a book enough to want to read it again (or recommend it, if asked for a recommendation), I mark it with an asterisk. The list has been with me for nearly 25 years, growing one entry at time, at what often feels like a snails pace. The most recent entry, made just a few days ago, is as follows:

805. The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA by James D. Watson; 256pp/4:11 (9/23/2018)

This reading list, the master source of which is kept in a red covered, college ruled Composition notebook, acts as a kind of memory primer for the story of my life. I can flip to any page in the book (I’ve filled 35 pages so far), randomly point to an entry, and at once can recall where I was, and what was going on in my life while I was reading the book in question.

In addition to the entries I make into my Composition book, I replicate the entries in a text file which I make available online, for those who might be curious.

Such lists seem pretty hard to come by, but they do exist. The reading list I’ve followed along the longest, that seems similar in character and format to my own is Eric W. Leuliette’s “What I have read since 1974“. Another one is none other than Art Garfunkel’s reading list–which goes back to 1968. Strangely, though, I’ve been hard-pressed to find many others. I think Goodreads might have killed the notion of a simple list of books one’s read, or at least vastly overcomplicated it.

I was glad, therefore, to discover Pamela Paul’s book, My Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books. The “Bob” to whom Paul refers is her “book of books,” a list of all the books she’s read from the time she was a teenager. The book itself uses her book of books as a focal point for a literary memoir. It made me think about my own version of Bob:

  • For a book to get on the list I have to finish it. I am surprisingly strict at enforcing this rule. To be otherwise would be to somehow cheat myself. Paul also tracked books she didn’t finish. I think my list would be at least twice as long if I tracked books that I didn’t finish.

  • What constitutes a book? Here I am less strict and give myself the benefit of the doubt. For instance, I’ve included on my list all of the issues of Astounding Science Fiction I read for my Vacation in the Golden Age series, even though they are magazines. I justified this to myself by saying that, at around 60-80,000 words per issue, they were as long as a book. A handful of novellas have made it onto the list, but always when they were in the form of a standalone book. And I’ve counted audiobooks as books because the text is the same as the printed book, which is good enough for me.

  • Paul argued that her book of books was revealing about herself and she was reluctant to share it with others. I am the opposite in this regard. While the list might be revealing, the context surrounding the books is virtually invisible except to me. Then, too, I make the list available in part because I wish there were more lists like this available to peruse for suggestions.

I have, over the years, pulled various metrics from my reading list. Here are some interesting stats:

  • The 805 books I’ve read amounts to 330,802 pages, or about 14,300 pages per year over the 23 year period I’ve kept the list.
  • The average length of a book on the list is 410 pages.

  • The longest book I’ve read is Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows. It was 1,424 pages. I have read 14 books that are 1,000 pages or longer.

  • In 2013 I started listening to audiobooks in addition to reading e-books and paper books. The volume up my reading has gone up dramatically since. The table below illustrates the impact of the change

Metrics 1996-2012 2013-2018
Years 17 6
Total books 501 304
Total pages 193,478 137,324
Avg books/yr 29 50
Avg pages/yr 11,381 22,887
Avg pages/bk 386 451
Max books/yr 42 87*

The list is fun for pulling out these statistics, but perhaps even more, the list tells the story of my life better than anything else I have written. Opening randomly to page 26, my eye falls on entry number 625:

655. This Old Man by Roger Angell, 320pp (11/25/2015)

Despite this being nearly 3 years ago, I still remember walking to a nearby ABC store to pick up some tequila for margaritas while listening to the book. Seeing the title brings me back to that walk. Another random roll and we land on:

431. Booklife by Jeff VanderMeer, 329pp (7/13/2010)

Seeing this entry, I am suddenly seated in a bar at Logan Airport, waiting for my flight back from a recent Readercon, and the time slipped by unnoticed as I am totally absorbed by this original book on the writer’s life. A flip back to the very beginning of the list:

7. A Tour of the Calculus by David Berlinski, 331pp (3/31/1996)

I don’t remember much about the book, but I remember sitting on the balcony of my small Studio City apartment, with my chair tilted back against the wall, reading this one.

At a glance, I see a title and am somewhere else. Blue Highways by William Least-Heat Moon (no. 577) puts me on the long drive from Virginia to Maine. Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss (no. 653, second time reading the book) transports me to a cool fall evening watching my son at soccer practice while I listen to Nick Podehl’s wonderful narration. I see book no. 199, John Adams by David McCullough, and it is nighttime in Castine, Maine. Everything is silent and out the windows it is pitch dark, and there I am in the midst of the American Revolution.

On September 11, 2001, I was reading Salem’s Lot by Stephen King (book no. 208). On the day my grandfather died I was reading Gateway by Frederik Pohl (book no. 300). On the day Frederik Pohl died, I was reading Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno (book no. 539).

On the day my son was born I was reading Polaris by Jack McDevitt (book no. 408), the very first e-book to appear on my list. When my middle daughter was born, I was reading Astounding Science Fiction, April 1941 edited by John Campbell (book no. 464). And on the day my youngest daughter was born, I was reading Up Till Now by William Shatner (book no. 650).

There aren’t a lot of things I really enjoy browsing, but a good, simple reading list is one of them. It’s too bad that Goodreads has put such simple lists on the endangered species list.

Published by Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Falls Church, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.